Making vital health research possible: Qatar Biobank
Qatar Biobank is the largest population based initiative ever undertaken in the country, involving the collection of biological samples. Qatar Biobank will be the driving force in developing research into the risk factors for obesity and related diseases, which are a major health challenge for Qataris, of whom 17 percent suffer from type-2 diabetes.
Qatar’s National Vision 2030 states that the wellbeing of its people is a priority. “To improve the health of Qatar’s population, Qatar aspires to develop an integrated system for healthcare, managed according to world-class standards. This system will meet the needs of existing and future generations, and provide for an increasingly healthy and lengthy life for all citizens…accessible to the entire population.”
Clearly fulfilling this aim, Qatar Biobank is one of the first population-based health initiatives in the region, and is in the final stages of preparing for an offical launch in 2013. During the Qatari official state visit to the United Kingdom in 2010, the Royal Society first announced the Qatar Biobank during the presence of Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser Al Missned.
Qatar Foundation for Educuaton, Science, and Community Development and the Supreme Council of Health established the Qatar Biobank, with the assistance of experts from Imperial College London. In the lead up to its official unveiling The Edge met exclusively with two European professors from the Imperial College London to discuss the Qatar Biobank.
“There are many important research projects already going on here in Qatar,” says Professor Elio Riboli, director of the school of public health at the college, “but this is the first one to involve tens of thousands of people from the young population.”
Qatar Biobank will help scientists develop ‘smart drugs’ that are targeted to the individual, and are effective treatments for the Qatari population.
Riboli explains that the main reason why the local biobank was founded is because what is developing today in Qatar is similar to what is happening around the world when it comes to changes in trends in types of diseases. “We have moved from a world where infectious diseases were the main problem, into a world where chronic diseases such as nutrition and obesity are becoming the main health issues, [especially] in Europe and North America.”
According to Riboli, statistics show that there are millions of people who die around the world per year, due to high blood pressure. “Almost eight million deaths each year, which is even higher than tobacco,” he says, adding that high blood glucose (a form of diabetes), lack of physical activity and obesity and high cholesterol are the main contributors. Ribilo underlines that a key factor is migration from a traditional rural society, where people have a lot of physical activity to a carbon-based society, where people do little physical activity and spend their day eating and in an air-conditioned environment. “There are two billion people overweight or obese in the world today, including Qatar,” continues Riboli, adding that in the Middle East, the number of obese has increased dramatically in the last 20 to 30 years, from 100,000 to half a billion today. “We are not blaming society, we are saying this is what happens and the question is how can you investigate better in the Qatari population and what are the causes of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, and to understand how to prevent them.”
Biobank is a prospective study, which in healthcare terms, means that biological samples are collected from participants and their urine, blood and saliva kept in a high tech storage facility for many years. This will permit scientists to study diseases already present in the Qatari population, as well as to follow up with the participants to see who develops a disease in the future. Researchers will compare data, including genetic information and data on environmental exposures and lifestyles, from participants who developed illnesses, with data from those who remain healthy. Riboli adds that the three biological samples are divided into 160 small tubes, and then stored via different methods, depending on the type of analysis.
Professor Paul Elliot, head of department of epidemiology and biostatistics at Imperial College London says to The Edge, “Basically, we store biological samples and over time some will go on to get chronic diseases such as heart diseases, stroke, cancer – we then find those people and go back to their samples and look within the samples to predict to those that would get a disease and compare to those who didn’t. This is what is called a biomarker or measurement, in that way we can understand more the cause of the disease…and this will allow us to screen people and intervene for those with that type of profile. And this is moving to a personalised healthcare.”
Elliot further explains that the idea of Qatar Biobank is to study the local community and residents that have been living in Qatar for more than 15 years. “What is unique about this programme is that eventually we will invite everyone who wants to come. But 60,000 people from the local population is a reasonable target.” Conversely, Elliot highlights that Qatar Biobank has state of the art technology to collect huge amounts of information about a person’s internal and external exposures. “The physiological exposures based on the chemistry in the body, but also reflecting what people are exposed to in their every day life, their diet, the environment they live in and their lifestyle, all that gets picked up either through looking at metabolised patterns in the blood, which will vary according to ones lifestyle and genetic makeup.”
Elliot explains that genetic makeup does help predict their risk of disease and environmental exposure against the genetic background, which determines their risk. “Both now with these new technologies, it can be explored with great detail, you can measure thousands of markers [chemical substance] of individuals, and that is why we require blood, urine and saliva samples so we can do great detailed explanations to identify where the individual sits in the spectrum.”
Additionally, Elliot explains that as well as genetic trends, samples also reveal a great deal about the impact of the participant’s environment. “Where they live is determining what their biochemistry looks like and that’s determining lifestyles, and we know it is not genetic and we see south China differentiates with north China, and they are genetically very similar,” adds Elliot, explaining that is because they have adopted the lifestyle of their host environment. “We cannot change people’s genetics but we can change the environment and the genetics in thread by influencing the environment, and that is good because that means we can influence risk.”
Qatar Biobank benefits
Most medical treatments are developed through the study of Western populations and there is a lack of large scale research based in the Gulf region. Qatar Biobank will play a vital role in facilitating in preventing and improving medical treatment that affect the local population and is set to become a valuable national resource for the health of Qatar’s children and grandchildren.
“Qatar is an extremely interesting population from a medical point of view. It’s a population in rapid transition towards more Western lifestyles,” says Riboli. “Qatar is home to residents from different regions of the world, which means we can look at disease risk factors in multiethnic populations in detail and on a very large scale.” According to the professors, Qatar Biobank will support the production of innovative medicines in the future. By carefully studying and then following the health of a large number of people, Qatar Biobank will give unique insights into the causes of a range of diseases that lead to premature death and impact the quality of life of the Qatari population. These insights will include new approaches to prevent diseases occurring in the first place, but will also result in better strategies to treat common diseases that afflict the population of Qatar. The information gained from undertaking genetic and other laboratory analysis of the blood samples collected, will help scientists develop ‘smart drugs’ that are targeted to the individual, and are effective treatments while presenting fewer undesired side effects among the local population.
“Qatar Biobank will provide a platform to support a wider spectrum of biomedical research in Qatar. This will stimulate public and private sector research development opportunities, working in partnership, and leading to scientific innovation that can be commercially developed,” concludes Elliot.